Stricter laws for animal cruelty eyed

MARIETTA – When it comes to animal abuse and neglect cases, Washington County Dog Warden Kelly McGilton has seen the full spectrum.

Many cases involve people who love their animals and simply refuse to admit they cannot care for them. However, other people viciously beat and kill animals or willfully starve them to death.

“One of the worst was Alicia Fryman, who was breeding her boxers. When she didn’t feel a use for them anymore because they didn’t breed, she would shove two or three in a crate at a time…and not feed them. She let them die,” said McGilton.

These cases represent the worst of the worst, said McGilton. But Ohio law does not differentiate from one animal cruelty case to the next-something McGilton and many others would like to see change.

Fryman, 30, of Marietta, was charged with 11 second-degree misdemeanor animal cruelty charges. She spent 15 weekends in jail and was ordered to not own animals during her probation, but in cases like Fryman’s that is not enough, argued McGilton.

“Somebody like that, I would like to see them not be allowed to own an animal for the rest of her life,” said McGilton.

Several neighboring states include provisions prohibiting those convicted of animal cruelty from owning animals for a certain time period after conviction. Some also offer provisions which give prosecutors the option to try particularly heinous crimes as felonies. In Ohio, first-time offenses involving animal cruelty are always a misdemeanor.

Neighboring West Virginia provides a felony provision for anyone who “intentionally tortures or maliciously kills an animal.” The felony carries a maximum $5,000 fine, three years in prison and stipulates the abuser not possess animals for 15 years.

It’s one of the reasons West Virginia ranked seventh on the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s 2012 ranking of state animal protection laws.

Ohio, which makes almost all animal cruelty cases a second-degree misdemeanor – punishable by a maximum of 90 days in jail and a $750 fine – ranks 34th.

Marietta resident Heather Doolittle, 31, said she is definitely in favor of stricter punishments for animal abusers.

“I think it’s wrong and cruel, especially when I see a dog tied up outside with no food or water on a hot day. The owners should be tied up with no food or water,” she said.

Marietta resident James K. Chapman, 57, said he would not be opposed to stricter penalties, but worries about being able to enforce them.

“As crowded as the legal system is, a big thing is being able to enforce the laws,” he said.

Enforcing the laws is largely dependent on the public, said McGilton, who added that often animal cruelty cases come to her in spurts.

“When someone hears one on the news, they think ‘Well I better make that phone call too.’ I wish they would make that call sooner,” she said.

Some recent pushes in the legislature have targeted animal welfare. Nitro’s Law, named for a Rottweiler who was starved to death at an Ohio kennel, makes animal cruelty a felony for kennel operators, owners and employees.

The bill was passed by the Ohio House of Representatives, but stalled in the Ohio Senate. However, the law was signed into effect by the governor last month as part of the state budget bill.

Representatives Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, and Debbie Phillips, D-Albany, both supported the bill.

Phillips said she generally favors stricter punishments for animal cruelty offenses.

“I would support felony punishment,” she said.

Thompson said Nitro’s law gave judges greater sentencing discretion in the case of kennel owners, and feels that giving judges some leeway in sentencing is preferable to enacting mandatory minimum sanctions.

It’s also important to draw a line distinguishing crimes against humans and crimes against animals, said Thompson.

Washington County Assistant Prosecutor Kevin Rings noted cases of animal cruelty are often committed by people who also commit acts of violence toward other humans.

“Violence against animals is a big red flag. A kid who will torture and cruelly kill animals oftentimes commits violent crimes as an adult,” noted Rings.

In one July case, two teens beat a Warren Township couple’s pet duck to death with a PVC pipe. They have been charged with delinquency by animal cruelty, the equivalent of an adult misdemeanor.

In another recent case, Phillip McClay, 50, of 10830 State Route 550, Barlow, was charged with a second-degree misdemeanor count of animal cruelty last week after he brutally killed a stray cat he had taken in weeks before-breaking its neck, beating it, and finally stringing it up and shooting the feline.

McClay told officers he saw nothing wrong with his disposal of the cat.

His attitude highlights another area of potential improvement in the law-more specific language.

“Sometimes it’s hard, what one person says is cruelty, another person doesn’t,” said Marietta resident Jack Brum, 57, who added that McClay’s case was clearly an act of cruelty.

However, a person who shoots an animal because it has a broken leg and suffering would be a different case, and the language of the law should reflect that, he said.

The law could also provide room to review whether an act of neglect was willfully cruel, such as McClay’s, or merely a symptom of some underlying mental instability, as was the case of Vicki Gray, a Little Hocking woman who hoarded more than 70 animals in deplorable conditions at her home in 2011, said McGilton.

“She was a hoarder. She didn’t want to hurt those animals. And she was living in just as bad of conditions as they were,” said McGilton, referring to the feces-covered home.

Treating McClay and Gray the same does not make sense, said McGilton, but that is exactly what happens. Gray was convicted of three second-degree misdemeanors in the case.

Ohio law does provide for a slightly more serious first-degree misdemeanor charge for those who “knowingly torture, torment, needlessly mutilate or maim, cruelly beat, poison, needlessly kill, or commit an act of cruelty against a companion animal,” said Marietta City Law Director Paul Bertram.

The law also provides a felony provision for someone who commits that offense a second time.

However, a first-degree misdemeanor animal cruelty offense is very rarely levied, he said.

“If you have to dig that deep to get an M1 out of torturing an animal, that’s pretty bad,” said McGilton.

While Marietta resident Ali Doerflinger, 36, said she thinks punishments could be stricter, several other measures could protect animals.

“There could be greater restrictions before you ever get to the abuse, such as having people register all their animals and possibly putting limits on the number of animals in a household,” she said.